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October 29, 2009

Hate crime, thought crime

By Spear's

There’s something inherently wrong in punishing someone for how they feel or think; surely we should punish people for what they do.

Gay groups and liberals all across America are celebrating Pres. Obama’s signing into law today the expanded hate crimes statute. The new law extends the definition of federal hate crimes to include those committed because of a victim’s gender or gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The measure, attached to an essential military-spending bill and sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt)  gives people the same federal safeguards already afforded to people who are victims of violent crimes because of their race, color, religion or national origin. Relatives of gays who have been savagely beaten or murdered, or even bullied until they committed suicide are jubilant about the new law.

In the American legal system, it is for the states to prosecute the underlying crime, whether it be murder, assault, etc. Then if the crime is judged to be motivated by hate, as per the hate crimes statute, that is an additional federal crime with an added penalty and much sterner punishment.

Needless to say, this places an additional burden on the judicial system: the prosecutor has to prove that the assailant knew or recognized the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation and the crime was motivated by this, rather than something else, like revenge over a personal grievance or merely greed as in a robbery: essentially prosecuting not the crime itself, but the thought in the head of the criminal at the time he or she was committing the crime.

While the liberal in me applauds the federal government’s stance on making it clear that hate and racism are not acceptable in a civilized society, the conservative in me frets about legislating people’s thoughts. There’s something inherently wrong in punishing someone for how they feel or think; surely we should punish people for what they do.

Beating, murdering and bullying are all wrong, for whatever reason, and should be sternly punished. If a gay teenage boy was bullied until he committed suicide, then punish bullying swiftly and severely, well before the victim before suicidal. Is it inherently worse to bully a gay than it is to bully a goth? Would it be more acceptable to bully a cheerleader? Isn’t it equally cruel?

Surely bullying, beating, murder are unacceptable no matter what. Perhaps, then, we’d be better off simply reforming the penal code more generally and punishing crimes more swiftly.

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Even so, not all gays are happy about the new hate crimes bill. Some are still angry that Obama has not yet overturned Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about gays in the military; they want it to be made legal for the openly gay to serve in the armed forces. Obama says he remains committed to changing the policy and the best way to do so is still under review. (Obama will never be rushed.)

Ironically, if you want legislation to influence what people think and how people feel and end hatred, allowing open gays in the military would do it: men, women, gays, straight, black, white, Christian, Muslim, all fighting side-by-side, comrades in arms, saving each other’s lives, rather than taking it. Now that really would be something.

The picture is of Matthew Shepard, who was killed in a hate crime in Wyoming in 1998

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